We know the task at hand: young people, specifically teenagers, are leaving the Church in droves. We’ve read the research, we’ve discussed the facts, and we have some understanding as to the cause. But now comes the hard part: we need to go out to the peripheries, engage the unaffiliated, and draw them (back) into the Church.
Yes, I’ll be the first to admit that teenagers are a bit . . . intimidating. What is it about a twenty-year age difference that makes us freeze in our tracks? Maybe you’ve found yourself where I have: at the other end of an all too silent room full of blank stares, rolling eyes, headphone-shielded ears. Evangelizing to teens is far from an easy task, but it is one of the most crucial facing the Church today. And while it may seem daunting, there is no experience quite as rewarding as bringing young adults into the Church and a relationship with Jesus Christ. Before embarking on our call to evangelize, I thought I would share some words of advice and helpful tips for evangelizing to teenagers that I have found useful over the years.
Teenage brains are wired differently.
Evangelists should be aware that the adolescent brain is not yet done developing. In fact, the teenage brain is almost wired to work against us. At this age, the prefrontal cortex—the planning, rationalizing, self-controlling, and decision-making part of the brain—is undergoing a kind of maintenance period leaving it sleepy and offline. This part of the brain is also the home of social and emotional interaction. It plays a pivotal roll in how adolescents not only interact with but also understand others. During this period of cognitive development in adolescents, the brain is still learning how to take into account someone else’s perspective and apply it to their own lives. As a result, the adolescent brain is operating with arguably faulty wiring: they make hasty decisions, act on emotions, and are at times completely incapable of seeing a situation from a different point of view outside of their own (parents and teachers of teenagers are probably nodding their heads in agreement right now). This causes teens to get a bad rap, often being labeled as self-centered, narrow-minded, or impulsive. As evangelists, we need to be mindful and aware of the immense changes that are taking part inside their brains, and we would be wise to remember that when engaging with them. It takes extra effort as an evangelist to teens, especially when there exists a difference of opinion.
Start with beauty.
After even a cursory glance at Instagram, it is clear that teenagers are in search of beauty. They look for beautiful things in the world around them and they desire to enter into communion with that beauty, to make it a part of themselves—or at least a part of their Instagram feed (which, when you think about it, is really a filtered and curated version of their identity as a person). As evangelists, we should encourage that noble quest to seek out and commune with the beautiful. Our challenge, however, is to help teens understand the difference between true, God-revealing beauty and temporary or superficial prettiness. This can be a tricky process as you don’t want to critique their concept of beauty, but you want to push them to develop their understanding of what constitutes true beauty. Ask questions, dive deeper into their appreciation of the beautiful, listen to what they have to say about the places they encounter the beautiful. Go ahead, listen to Beyoncé’s new album with them, and ask them to share their thoughts on if or how the music rocks their world . . . and what does it mean to say that? At the same time, share your experience with the beautiful and invite them to experience it with you. Talk in descriptive terms about where you find beauty in the world. What is it about that image/song/experience that stirs your soul? Show them that art, describe the scene, read the passage . . . play your favorite, soul-stirring Beyoncé song for them. Extend the invitation to them to experience the beauty you see in the world and your understanding of how it leads us to God. Enter into a dialogue about beauty that will guide them to those deep, thought-provoking questions and path to the ultimate Truth.
Approach with respect and honesty.
Teenagers today are living in a world so incredibly different from the one you or I grew up in. They have never known a world without iPhones, the internet, or social media. They have been thrust into a very adult world, forced to make adult decisions, and conduct themselves in adult ways. For all intents and purposes, they are adults, they are our peers, and we need to approach them as such when evangelizing. To talk to them as children, like they are in Sunday school, would immediately turn them off and shut down your lines of communication. In the same vein, teenagers can sense disingenuity from a mile away. Despite a sleepy prefrontal cortex, they are keenly aware of when they’re being marketed to. Therefore, it is best to approach from a place of complete and total honesty. In a world where truth is often manipulated or obfuscated by Instagram filters, photoshop, and CGI animation, teenagers crave honesty and transparency. They aren’t impressed by fancy presentations or glittery campaigns; they’re too savvy for that. What they crave is the truth. Take the opportunities where you can to share your faith story in an honest and real way. Likewise, give them the opportunity to talk. Most importantly, listen to what they have to say.
Don’t be discouraged. Plant the seed, then wait.
Evangelization takes time. Evangelization of teens might take even longer. Several years ago, I was a small group leader for a Confirmation class at my local parish (side note: I think there’s a special place in heaven set aside for Confirmation small group leaders). In my small group was a young man named Caleb. Caleb did not want to be there. I pulled out all the stops, making him my personal evangelical mission. I did my best to share my faith in an honest, real, beautiful way. He remained unconvinced, even outright defiant to my attempts. He received the sacrament, but I felt like I had failed. I prayed for him and his fellow confirmandi and focused on other tasks ahead of me. I saw Caleb the other month—at Sunday Mass—participating, praying, singing (singing!). Maybe it was me, maybe it wasn’t, but somewhere a seed was planted. He just needed time. I cannot help but think of a quote from television. Claire Dunphy, a character from the TV series Modern Family, said in regards to raising (in this case, evangelizing) children, “Raising a kid is like sending a rocket ship to the moon. You spend the early years in constant contact, and then one day, around the teenage years, they go around the dark side and they’re gone. All you can do is wait for that faint signal that says they’re coming back.” As evangelists, we need to be confident in our efforts and have faith in God’s grace. Results often won’t be immediate, but our efforts and our words will be stored away in those still-developing brains, taking root, and hopefully, someday, taking hold.
Years of teaching and evangelizing to teenagers have taught me a few things—including the fact that this age group is unlike any other. They are impulsive but deep thinkers; narrow-minded, but willing to listen to honest and truthful stories; fiercely independent, yet crave to be a part of something bigger than themselves. They seek out beauty in all areas of life and, when they find it, they are compelled to share it. They are truly unique and deserving of our care and attention. Despite their cool, aloof, or even downright defiant exteriors, teens are nothing to be feared; they are just young adults craving to be listened to and understood.